A timeline of responses to the NZ Book Council’s Report on reader attitudes and behaviours.
The NZ Book Council releases Report on reader attitudes and behaviours by Catherine Robertson and Paula Morris, two novelists with experience of how to conduct surveys. You can download the PDF here. Quote unquote:
According to Nielsen BookScan, in 2014, New Zealand fiction comprised only 3% of all fiction bought in this country. Based on available sales data, estimates suggest that New Zealand fiction comprises more like 5-6% of all fiction bought here. Our research aimed to discover the reasons for the comparatively low consumption.
The Listener publishes “Why aren’t adults reading New Zealand fiction books?” by Elizabeth Easther, based on the report. The subhead is: “A survey reveals we have a crisis on our hands, with adults reading almost no New Zealand fiction.” Quote unquote:
The results showed deeply ingrained negative impressions towards New Zealand writing. When asked to quickly describe “New Zealand fiction”, about 75% came up with negative words including “dark”, “grim”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “overrated” and “boring”. […] Younger readers were especially down on local fiction, summing it up as growing up in the backblocks “with pohutukawa and jandals”; “everything happening really slowly, no action”; Kiwiana, “a slice of not-very-enjoyable life, plodding and dull”.
So while the Book Council can pretend it isn’t an agency of Government the fact is, it’s board are largely there for the wine and cheese, and it is almost entirely taxpayer funded agency delivering Creative New Zealand programmes. […]
Catherine Robertson’s book club ladies interpreted the Creative New Zealand’s “High quality art” thing as a grim, actionless, literature with too many Pohutakawas and jandals in it.
This means the problem isn’t really the Book Council, or even Creative New Zealand, it’s that state support for literature in New Zealand is forced through the association with Creative New Zealand’s emphasis on “High quality art” to be what many New Zealanders would consider to be pretentious and arty farty.
What King doesn’t make clear here is that he is a genre writer so has, as they say, some skin in the game.
National Business Review doesn’t often comment on New Zealand literature but Nevil Gibson in his “Editor’s Insight” column, headed “Why Kiwi writers hate John Key and people don’t read NZ fiction”, has a view. Quote unquote:
Why the lack of entertainment value in Kiwi books and films?
I think the reasons are obvious. Too many writers ignore what’s happening around them or don’t like it. We know from studies such as Roger Horrocks’ Reinventing New Zealand (2016) that most of the academic and much of the artistic community think the post-Rogernomics era has been disastrous.
This, of course, is the opposite to the view of the majority, particularly those who read a lot and have access to everything available on the global scene.
The Horrocks view is that neo-liberalism has created a commercial environment run by “ruthless bean counters” and has removed the arts from the “public sphere.”
In this view, profit-making enterprises in the arts detract from the socialist goal of publicly-funded work that has strong political messages.
Copyright NBR. Cannot be reproduced without permission.
Peter King posts again online, this time under the heading “#NZbooks – how to start a better story”. Quote unquote:
For example New Zealand’s New York Times bestselling romance author Nalini Singh cannot be found on the Book Council’s writer files. She’s been writing for over a decade so it’s not that they haven’t had time to put her there.
You see what I mean? An organisation set up to promote NZ writing to New Zealanders doesn’t even recognise one of our top international bestselling authors, and then runs research showing New Zealand readers haven’t heard of her and find what they have heard of as grim etc etc.
Peter King’s 17 September blogpost is republished at The Spinoff with the advisory:
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that the NZ Book Council receives half a million dollars a year in funding from Creative New Zealand. The council in fact received $350,000 in 2016. It also claimed that the Book Council provided mentorships, grants and travel opportunities. This is not the case. For a number of years the council ran the CNZ International Travel Fund for Writers but the fund is now managed by the Publishers Association of New Zealand. We regret the errors.
Catherine Robertson, co-author of the report, responds to the general hoo-hah on her blog under the heading “What it’s like when you inadvertently unleash a shit-storm”. Quote unquote:
We are attacked by the literary establishment! (They obviously decided to give genre fiction writers a break and turn on us instead.) A renowned publisher with a beard tweets: ‘If for years you tell people they think NZ books are boring then ask them if they think NZ books are boring…’
Strangely, because we are not actual cretins, we didn’t ask them that. And is the logic weird, or is it just me? Who’s the ‘you’ who’s telling people they think New Zealand books are boring? FIND THEM! HUNT THEM DOWN! IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT! […]
On a lone Facebook comment thread numerous people decide the furious blogger’s rant is formless and weird, and his comments about old ladies are sexist. They wonder why Paula and I would want to diss genre writers when we are genre writers (I write commercial women’s fiction and Paula writes fantasy YA). Paula and I want to hug these people.
In the comments – there are many, and Catherine has patiently replied to them all – is this from Paul Gilbert:
The single best “advocacy” for all NZ writers would be something like a Gazette that records all NZ publications released that month, with simple blurb, publisher and author, where to buy, etc – a genuine one-stop shop for anyone wanting to follow new NZ writing. That way readers can see what catches their fancy rather than have their choices filtered by industry. And their perception of NZ writing will duly widen.
Paula Morris joins the debate at her blog in a post on a different but related topic, “Do New Zealand books need special treatment?” Quote unquote:
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Catherine Robertson and I were being chastised online – which is the contemporary version of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with hypocrisy and manufactured outrage, except with ‘comments’ instead of bonfires – for daring to be women who ran focus groups of (mainly) women asking about their book-buying habits. We were sure, being women and all, to have done it wrong; we were sure to have had no experience running focus groups; we were sure to loaded the groups with women over 35, just because they buy books; we were sure to have asked leading questions, and goaded people into trashing Important New Zealand writers; we were sure to have excluded genre fiction, and tried to further our Industrial Literary Complex agenda; we were sure to have locked men out, and ignored library statistics, and to have kept the sample wilfully small, and proclaimed an end to all further research ever – even though our report explicitly addresses the next step, and that our key finding was about visibility rather than boringness, and so on.
Booksellers NZ has the bright idea of getting Rachel O’Neill to ask some booksellers what they think. As I always say, if you want to know what is going on in the bookworld, ask a bookseller. Quote unquote:
The report points out that “People discover new books in numerous ways” and that “Older readers cited mostly local sources for book news and reviews”, while younger readers look to international sources. David Cameron keyed into this area of the report, “We do sell a number of overseas literary journals but the NZ journals such as New Zealand Books and Landfall are too infrequent to influence book sales significantly. There is so much competing for people's attention and I have no answer to this.”
Susan Strongman brings it all to newspaper readers’ attention. Quote unquote:
Critics of the report took to the internet, calling the work a “big pile of anecdotes” and saying the council was failing at its role of promoting New Zealand literature.
Others took to social media; after several tweets critiquing the report, Victoria University press publisher Fergus Barrowman told the Herald on Sunday he thought the survey didn’t have anything new or useful to say.
Romance writer Brynn Kelly tweeted she thought the problem was that “mainstream and genre writers are largely ignored by media, festivals, etc. [and] readers aren’t aware of diversity.”
New York Times bestselling author, New Zealander Nalini Singh, writer of wildly popular paranormal romance series agreed, saying she thought New Zealand fiction was narrowly defined.
Robertson said the overall reaction left her feeling depressed and beleaguered.
“We wanted to shed a little light on the barriers that might prevent readers enjoying terrific New Zealand books, of all genres.”
In the Listener story that kicked all this off, Paula Morris said that a large part of the problem is the lack of information about our books and writers. Quote unquote:
“We can do a lot more to get clear, useful information about new books to readers and to make good reviews of new New Zealand fiction more accessible and visible.”
Why, it’s almost as if someone should start a magazine, perhaps a monthly, aimed at the mainstream book-buying market – not books only, obviously. Perhaps movies, food, theatre and visual arts to broaden the appeal, but books mostly. Not just NZ books of all genres but putting them alongside overseas books which book club members would be interested in. You’d maybe have reviewers who were knowledgeable and could write entertainingly. You’d have photos of NZ authors on the cover to make it look like a normal magazine. And you’d work hard to get it displayed in supermarkets, which is where normal people buy their magazines. And it could do what Paul Gilbert suggested and list books published in New Zealand that month but not reviewed in that issue by title, author, publisher and ISBN. As a service to readers, booksellers and librarians.